When I open the big glass front doors at Shore Acres Nursing Home, I see Lucy first of all. She blocks my path with her wheelchair and says, "Which road do I take to Tampa?"
I laugh and say, "I'd take a left." Quickly, she maneuvers the chair away from me, taking a left down the long hall. She begins to shout: "I gotta get there, outta my way, I'm late."
Walking along behind her, I come to Vera, who used to be a Rockette in New York City. Seeing those lifeless limbs and her emaciated form in the wheelchair, I find it hard to imagine her doing a high kick. But when I ask her about those days, she brightens, and I know it is true _ she did have a remarkable career a long time ago.
Next I visit Bonnie, who is blind. She recognizes my voice and says, as she looks up at the ceiling, "I'm hungry." I run to the kitchen door and plead for some ice cream for her, but they give me apple sauce.
An aide passing by says, "Don't just hand that to her; she will get it all over herself. You should feed her."
So I take a few extra minutes to feed her the cool dessert. She gobbles it up, delighted and grateful. When she has finished, she grabs my hand and kisses it. I almost feel like crying, because I have done so little for her. I should be teaching her Braille or reading to her. Since she is so quiet and sweet, we all rush past her and ignore her.
Next I see my old friend Elsie Rathmann careening down the hall on two wheels. She could win the Olympics today. She is jealous that I have been spending time with Bonnie and asks impatiently if I remembered to bring her some M&M's. I have, but I dole them out to her gingerly, because the nurses say she is not eating at mealtimes and lives for those treats.
Today I change the subject by asking, "What did you do before you retired, Elsie?"
"I did a lot of different things, but mostly I worked for GTE. I was a telephone operator."
"Did you enjoy your work?"
"Sure. I was fast. I could put a call through while two other girls were just thinking about it. Some of them were more interested in the crossword puzzle than helping people, but not me _ I loved all those fine voices."
Now she is lost in thought, remembering her life, and I am wondering how she became optimistic after losing both her husband and son in 1945. Her sister and her church friends filled that void, evidently.
Ada Lee has passed us twice in the hallway as she wheels herself all the way around the building continually. She was a farm girl who helped her family plant cotton in Georgia and looked after her aged parents until their deaths. There is no one left in her family to look after her, but she thinks her sister is here somewhere and will braid her hair in a few minutes.
Marguerite Allcock of Ontario is blind, but she can sing well and enjoys the sing-alongs on Fridays.
When her husband was alive, they had a theater in St. Catherine's, 30 miles from Buffalo, N.Y., and they booked variety and vaudeville actors to put on shows in their small town. "I had a wonderful life," she says, laughing, "and all those strange and talented people come back to me in my memory now. Some of them were much better than the singers who became famous."
Mary Martin of Pittsburgh smiles as I compare her to Peter Pan flying through the air. She doesn't know much about the theatrical Mary Martin but says her own life was good. She went to work for Westinghouse when her children were older, and she liked her co-workers. Mary says that when her children were small, that was the happiest time of her life.
Leland Warronck looks forlorn but brightens when he sees I have brought him a piece of candy. He beckons me closer, as if he can't hear what I am saying, but really what Leland wants is a kiss! What most of them want is a little notice, a kind word to brighten the day.
Where are the rest of you? Come out and help with this task of visiting. It is actually fun when you get a few favorites who give you a special smile. They are all very special to me.
Grace Druyor lives in Pinellas County.